Ambulance Driver Crashes Into TDOT Help Truck – Is There an Incapacitated Driver Defense?

David Cline, the paramedic who was killed when the private ambulance he was driving slammed into the back of a TDOT roadside help truck on Interstate 65 on October 22, 2009,  had a history of medical problems, including narcolepsy and epilepsy.  Investigators are unsure why Cline left the highway  but believe that the he suffered a "seizure or some type of medical condition that [incapacitated] him and led to the fatal crash, according to the final report released by Metro Nashville Police Department on December 28, 2009.  The story was reported in The City Paper.

The article reports that "after performing a toxicology examination, police determined Cline had an elevated level of amphetamines in his bloodstream from his prescribed medication for narcolepsy, Adderall. The same report did not find indications his prescribed epilepsy medication, Depakote, was in his system."    The article also reports that

Cline did have previous incidents involving seizures and car crashes. On Christmas Day 1999, Cline ran off the road and struck a utility pole after he had a seizure, and following the incident, his driver’s license was suspended. His credentials were reinstated in March of 2000. He suffered another seizure while working his day job as a Franklin firefighter, "three or four years prior" to the deadly crash.

Is Cline’s Estate and his employer liable for this wreck?  We need more facts.  Here is a general statement of the law under these circumstances:

 A sudden loss of consciousness or physical capacity experienced while driving which is not reasonably foreseeable is a defense to a negligence action. To constitute a defense, defendant must establish that the sudden loss of consciousness or physical capacity to control the vehicle was not reasonably foreseeable to 156 a prudent person. As a result, the defense is not available under circumstances in which defendant was made aware of facts sufficient to lead a reasonably prudent person to anticipate that driving in that condition would likely result in an accident.

In determining whether the loss of capacity or consciousness was foreseeable, pertinent, nonexclusive considerations would include: the extent of the driver’s awareness or knowledge of the condition that caused the sudden incapacity; whether the driver had sought medical advice or was under a physician’s care for the condition when the accident occurred; whether the driver had been prescribed, and had taken, medication for the condition;  whether a sudden incapacity had previously occurred while driving; the number, frequency, extent, and duration of incapacitating episodes prior to the accident while driving and otherwise; the temporal relationship of the prior incapacitating episodes to the accident;  a physician’s guidance or advice regarding driving to the driver, if any; and medial opinions regarding the nature of the driver’s condition, adherence to treatment, foreseeability of the incapacitation, and potential advance warnings which the driver would have experienced immediately prior to the accident. These factors, and any other relevant ones under the circumstances, would tend to establish whether the duty to exercise reasonable care was breached.

McCall v. Wilder, 913 S.W.2d 150, 156 (Tenn. 1995).   For a case in which a defendant successfully asserted the defense, see Beasley v. Amburgy, 70 S.W.3d 74 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001).

Even if the driver has the defense, there is a question about the employer’s potential negligence for hiring a professional driver with a history of seizures and narcolepsy.   There are lots of cases discussing this area of the law, starting at least as far back as 1936:  Wishone v. Yellow Cab Co No. 1, 20 Tenn. App. 229, 97 S.W.2d 452 (1936, cert. den. 1936).

As is often the case, the information that is publicly available does not give us enough information to evaluate the merits of the claims.  The claim against Cline can only be truly evaluated after a through review of the events leading up to the collision, the physical evidence at the scene, and the medical history of Mr. Cline.  Any direct liability of the employer can only be evaluated after an investigation of what the employer knew and should have known about Mr. Cline’s history.  One wonders, however, why someone with these types of medical problems was driving an ambulance.